The Purpose of Church Leaders

You’ve been floating resumes and looking for positions and pulpits. Inevitably, you may receive a call — after what felt like an eternity — to sit down with a search committee. I can see it. You are sitting in a room that’s been temporarily converted from a youth room to a conference room, and you are sitting across a table from a few church members who might feel unsure about what they’re doing. They’re going to ask you: “We’ve got this retirement community across the road, how would you plan to reach them?” Or, “We’ve got a burning desire to start a family ministry here, how do you plan to start that?”

My goal is to show you that you should look here — in Ephesians 4:11-16 — for your answer, and that you would be fortified to resist every effort to get you to consider some boxed ministry module, some guru’s system, or anything else that can be marketed.

Elders and church leaders are God’s gift to the saints

Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians that God gave the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Our brother Paul’s emphasis up to this point is on the church. Sure, Election is in chapter one; salvation by grace through faith and reconciliation in chapter two; and God fulfilling all his promises to Abraham in Christ in chapter three. But the undercurrent throughout it all is the emphasis on the church in order that God would bewilder the “wisdom” of this world. This I believe is further proved by the fact that right after Paul urges the saints to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which they were called” he said: “grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…and he gave…” (4:1; 7; 9).

Church leaders are a gift of grace to the church. This should encourage those of us preparing for church leadership in three ways: first, God in Christ, is able to give his church gifts because of the victorious triumph that Christ has made over all things in ascending “that he might fill all things” (4:10). Paul has already mentioned Christ filling all things with a singular focus on the church (1:23). The power (1:19) which raised Christ from the dead now rules over everything and gives Him the right and prerogative to give these gifts.

God isn’t giving insignificant gifts like “Hatchimals” or “Hotwheels” to his church; He is tipping his scepter and moving all things to equip his church with leaders. The cosmic-ruling providence of God in Christ is giving gifts to his Church not with the hope that the church would grow up in Christ, but because she will grow up into maturity. It’s not on us or our strength to make it happen. Ephesians is clear: this happened before the foundation of the earth. Failure is not even a possibility.

Second, because pastors are gifts from God, there is no room or reason for boasting in ourselves. Think about Paul’s words: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Co 4:7.

Finally, there is an purpose for the gift. No husband gives a gift to his wife without thinking that I hope I got the right size and without designing how he plans the gift to be received — make her happy, help her in work, make her life easier. In the same way, God gave his church pastors for a purpose.

Elders and church leaders work to equip the saints for ministry and the building up of the church

What is equipping the saints mean?

A pastor fulfills his duties in a full-time way insofar as he is teaching, praying, and meeting with the flock throughout the week. The passage later explains how the church is to be grown up. This occurs through speaking the truth in love. More to follow below, but suffice to say here: truth-speaking is the primary way that the saints are equipped. This is not limited to preaching. Truth is communicated over cups of coffee, hospital visits, baseball games, and more. Truth is communicated in and through a life lived worthy of imitating (Heb 13:7).

Now, sadly, most of that truth-speaking will never be seen nor measured. People just will not see you visit with the saint who is dying in the hospital or tucked away from wife or kids laboring over texts to prepare to feed the sheep. They will, unfortunately, notice if you cancel a staff or committee meeting. Only one of these, however, is actual ministry – only one of these builds up the church. Alexander Strauch outlined the task of pastor/elders in his book Biblical Eldership: Elders are to:

“lead the church (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1–2), teach and preach the Word (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9), protect the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17, 28–31), exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:13–17; Titus 1:9), visit the sick and pray (James 5:14; Acts 6:4), and judge doctrinal issues (Acts 15:6). In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church” (16).

Notice what was entirely lacking in our passage: administrative tasks. This is because church leadership is not about “ministry administration.” The task of church leadership is first and foremost a theological one – not an administrative (as in logistics) one. Incidentally, the need to meet logistical demands is the whole reason that deacons exist (Acts 6:1-4).

None of these requirements can occur within a traditional forty-hour work week, and that expectation crushes pastors across America. The office of elder is simply incomparable to that of a business executive, no matter how many similarities some might attempt to connect. It only leaves men in the pastorate feeling like they must “prove” that they work enough or some other form of justification to satisfy American cultural demands.

Incidentally, this does not mean mere “delegation.” Delegation is a good thing and an important aspect of “entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:2). Too many pastors view ministry as something that can and should be delegated so that they can spend more time managing staff. Too many pastors would rather delegate hospital visits to plan a building campaign. I think this is a profound disservice to the church.

When you sit before that search committee, it’s possible that they going to be looking for a CEO — an expert – who can come in with a program for “ministry”. Brother pastors, you are a CEO, but not a chief executive officer. You are a chief equipping officer to build up the church’s capacity for service.

What does it look like to build up the church?

Pastors work until the saints are mature and look like Christ. Look at the key words here: unity of faith and knowledge of Christ. That is doctrine. The church is built up by doctrine. This isn’t doctrine unto puffed up boasting. Instead, this is doctrine which promotes Christlikeness.

Pastors also work so that saints will not be lead astray by false doctrine. Maturity precedes this. Pastors are to work until maturity in order that…Look at the imagery there in Ephesians 4. An immature Christian is like a boat tossed to and fro in the waves. This is a perfect illustration. A boat has no foundation; it is entirely at the mercy of the waves and wind. Again, no program can anchor a person tossed around like a boat. Only doctrine which promotes maturity can guard the mind from this.

Elders and church leaders grow the saints by speaking the truth in love.

So, what are pastors supposed to do? Notice the simple word: we are to grow up, and the participle of means: speaking the truth in love. Paul says: grow up by speaking truth to one another. I’ll say it again, church leadership is not primarily an administrative task but rather a theological task.

The only tool in our toolbox is the truth. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul defines, if you will, the truth: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13–14). Thank God that it’s not up to us to figure out what we should say. Say the exact same thing that you have heard, “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”

So, brothers, when you sit before that committee and they are asking for your “plan.” Open here, and say: “My goal is to grow you guys up in Christ by speaking truth.” I pray that we will do it well to the bewilderment of worldly wisdom, methods, and models so that God — not a conference speaker — but God gets all the glory.

3 Replies to “The Purpose of Church Leaders”

  1. I guess it depends on the kind of church that’s involved. Some churches stack their leadership with yes-men who never question the pastor but also act as gate-keepers to the pastor – perhaps “bouncer” might be a more apt description of their function. Some churches have leaders who are clueless about what’s been going on in seminaries and let wolves in thinking they’re sheep because they don’t know what red flags to look our for what alarm bells to listen to in their carefully selected application and chosen words when asked questions. Other churches, quite rare ones, have leaders who know that their function is to serve and put themselves last. As badly as they might prefer their favorite pet teaching, they know that it’s not for everyone and they put the interests of others before their own whims and fancies. This didn’t happen at my last church. One elder would always wait for the deacon that never sided with him to be out of town and then he’d push through his favorite teachings without considering alternative points of views. When the pastor moved on, he selected a new pastor that agreed with him theologically, so he had to no longer sneak around the rules to get things done his way. Now all that church does is talk about male eldership this, men rule that – all very Biblical, I’m sure, but marginalizing to everyone else.

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    1. Sorry to hear about your experience in that church. If I had space in this blog, perhaps I could have talked about that style of leadership. Unfortunately, though I have lots to say on it, it didn’t quite fit the statement I was going after. Eventually I do plan on writing about qualifications for church leadership, and I think it might address the specific points your make in your comment. All that to say, thanks for your thoughts, and I’m sorry to hear about that experience.

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  2. Zach, I came back here today because this exposition has been lodged in my mind since the day I heard you deliver it. Thank you for serving me then, and again now through the Word.

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